12 min read

Ghost vs Substack - making money with memberships

A comparison between two content heavyweights. Substack made newsletters cool again. Ghost is powering independent creators to earn more.
Ghost vs Substack - making money with memberships

Substack and Ghost are 2 of the most popular options for creators these days. Their focus is on monetizing content, mostly with memberships.
This is a complete comparison between Ghost and Substack. You will see know:

  • who owns the data;
  • hows their SEO;
  • what are the design options;
  • the writing experience;
  • if it's possible to extend functionalities;
  • best use cases;
  • and pricing.

Let's find out who is the ultimate publishing platform!


Affiliate Disclaimer: Some links are affiliates. This means that if you buy after clicking on one of those, I get a commission at no additional cost to you.

Ghost vs Substack: comparison summary

The main difference is that Substack is a no-code hosted platform for creators to send newsletters, blog, and publish podcasts. At the same time, Ghost is an open-source publishing platform for blogs and newsletters.

Since Substack is hosted, you don't have to install anything to configure everything. It's effortless and beginner-friendly, but they have content guidelines and can ban a publication without any warning.

Because Ghost is open-source, users can easily decide to self-host or use managed hosting. Ghost websites are fast, and they are well optimized for SEO. Ghost is very powerful and used by some big companies, which doesn't happen with Substack.

Ghost summary

Ghost is the best platform for writers and the best alternative to Substack.

Ghost is open-source and doesn't have content guidelines, which works pretty well for independent publishing.

This platform is fantastic for monetizing written content with memberships. Their focus is on content publishing for blogs, newsletters, and podcasts websites.

Main strengths:

  • 0% fees;
  • Good search engine optimization;
  • Fast websites;
  • Paywall cannot be bypassed;
  • Hundreds of integrations (including Zapier);
  • Excellent editor for writing;
  • A hybrid platform for blog and newsletter;
  • No coding knowledge is required whit managed hosting;
  • Freedom to self-host;
  • Safe websites (an almost immaculate record);
  • Multiple users log in for staff.

Ghost main limitations:

  • Lack of email sequences and welcome emails;
  • Self-hosting isn't intuitive (requires command-line knowledge);
  • Theme customization requires coding;
  • Lack of native comments;
  • Extreme focusing on content publishing (this makes Ghost not suited for other activities);
  • Limited newsletter analytics (no click tracking).

Substack summary

Substack was created in 2017 and is the main reason for newsletters becoming so popular again.

In their short existence, Substack already significantly impacted media and attracted high-profile writers. Also, Substack uses a modern approach to blogging which combines a blog with a newsletter.

And this allows creators to use Substack to create all kinds of content.

By publishing on Substack, you have to follow their content guidelines. However, you still own the content and can export it if you want to move to another platform. It's also possible to export the subscriber list.

Substack strengths:

  • No coding required;
  • Can be used for free forever;
  • Works as blog + newsletter;
  • Free podcast hosting;
  • Video hosting (private beta);
  • Good email deliverability;
  • Fast website;
  • Good safety record.

Substack limitations:

  • Content guidelines (you have to follow their rules or risk getting banned);
  • High fees without a ceiling (they keep of 10% your memberships);
  • Bad SEO and discoverability of your Substack page (especially for small newsletters);
  • Lack of email sequences;
  • Lack of integrations;
  • No tags or email segmentation (only segment by free or paid subscribers);
  • Minimal design options (all Substack pages look the same);
  • Enabling a custom domain costs $50.

Comparing Substack to Ghost

Now, it's time to see a head-to-head comparison to see if Substack or Ghost will serve you better.

These are the 6 categories of the comparison:

  • Starting and managing an account;
  • Creating and writing;
  • Customization;
  • Pricing;
  • Monetization;
  • SEO and Growing tools.

Starting and managing an account

Here I'm looking at how easy it is to start and create posts on each platform.

How easy is it to start using Substack?

Substack is effortless to start an account. To me, it's the standard of easy for creating and sending a newsletter. You only need 2 minutes to create a Substack account and fill some fields with the name and description of your publication. That's basically it.

After doing those steps, you are ready to start importing posts and subscribers or dive into writing new posts.

Managing the content of posts on Substack is also straightforward. There's only a list of posts in reverse chronological order if you want to make some updates.

How easy is it to start using Ghost?

In Ghost's case, things vary between the self-hosted and a managed hosting version.

If you pick Ghost with managed hosting, especially Ghost (Pro), you don't need to install or set up. You can even use the default subdomain they give or set up a custom domain, which I highly recommend.

For self-hosting and other managed hosting companies, you need to create a Mailgun account and connect it to Ghost before you start sending newsletters. If this is your first time using Mailgun, it could take you some tries. For example, it took me about 30 minutes to figure out how to make it work.

That's why for simplicity reasons, Ghost (Pro) is my top recommended hosting for Ghost.

It's worth saying that you can also import members and posts to Ghost from your previous platform.

The Ghost dashboard is simple and easy to manage content.

Who wins this category?

Substack because it's much more beginner-friendly. You cannot complicate things with Substack, as it works in ways that almost anyone can use it.

I'm not saying Ghost is complicated or will be a nightmare to use and manage content. But if I had to give a score from 1 to 10, I'll give an 8 Ghost and a 10 to Substack.

Creating and writing

Now, I'll explore the process of creating content with each tool.

Editor features and writing experience on Substack

The editor is super clean, with only a few settings at the top. This layout is a breeze for a minimalist with nothing on the way. But this is when simplicity plays against Substack's users if they want anything more than just writing.

A beginner will Substack's editor more than enough. Most users using it for newsletters also won't have trouble with the lack of features. But if you use Substack as a blogging platform, you are handicapped.

On Substack, it's not possible to add custom HTML, inject code or scripts to the page, and define links as nofollow. If you aren't a developer, this might sound like unnecessary stuff, but it's essential. Trust me when I say that even if you don't know how to code, you will want to do something, and you won't be able to because Substack lacks custom HTML support. It will be infuriating.

Custom HTML opens a world of possibilities like embedding forms, making tables, and even writing code for the required sponsored tag on affiliate links.

It's baffling how many people risk Google penalties by not marking affiliate links appropriately. Most haven't suffered any penalties, but they are bound to happen in the future, and then they'll blame a Google update because of it.

It's also impossible to add an image gallery, exclusive email content, or content toggles.

Editor features and writing experience on Ghost

Like Substack, Ghost is simple to use and focuses on writing. The text editor on Ghost is the best I've tried so far. It has lots of features, is clean and writing there is a fantastic experience.

The feature list is enormous, and I recommend you to read the Ghost review to see the complete list.

In short, Ghost editor has everything one needs to write without missing anything critical.

The only things missing in the editor I can think of are version history and a card for email capture. But you still can use custom HTML to create email captures without much trouble.

On Ghost, you can make tables and product review cards with descriptions and star ratings. Also, you have different styles for callouts and quotes. It's excellent.

Who wins this category?

Ghost wins this category with a large margin. In terms of grades, Substack is a 4 and Ghost 9.5.

In general, you have to use Substack as it is. You can't extend its features by using integrations or plugins. This is a significant limitation, especially when you consider the limited features available in the editor.

Ghost editor isn't perfect because blogstatic has one feature that I think Ghost should also implement. The feature is that there are no previews required because they appear on the editor the same way they appear on the page. Ghost is a bit of a nuisance when I send posts by email because I'm not sure how custom HTML and code embeds will appear.

Ghost is light years better for writing, and it won't hold you back.

Customization

Next comes customization and design.

Customization on Substack

Customization on Substack is minimal. All newsletters and blogs look the same. You look at a page you instantly recognize you're on Substack. It's tough to build a recognizable brand this way.

You can change the background color and have some fonts to pick from, but you'll only have 3 layout options. This is an improvement because, for a long time, there was only 1 layout.

Also, you can't build or buy themes to customize Substack from its default. That's why I say options are very limited.

When it comes to integrations, Substack is also limited as they don't have an API, so it's impossible to integrate them with any service. This is another huge limitation.

Customization on Ghost

Ghost has lots of theme customization options available. There is an increasing number of themes available for starters, ranging from free to premium. Some will even make your site look like Medium or Substack.

If you want a custom theme, you can code it yourself or hire an expert, including hiring me as I work with the inoryum team developing themes for Ghost.

However, Ghost isn't a no-code website builder where you can customize everything with sliders and buttons. Instead, you need to know how to code to make most layout changes. So, it's not perfect for everyone, but at least customization is possible.

It's possible to customize Ghost even further with hundreds of integrations. Ghost has an API to connect it to several other services, including Zapier.

Who wins this category?

Ghost wins this category. Substack is a 4, and Ghost a 7.

The difference is enormous here. Substack is extremely limited, and you can only use the layouts and fonts they selected. This leans towards simplicity and creates uniformity, making it harder for you to stand out and express yourself. Also, Substack doesn't allow integrations, closing the door to several use cases.

With Ghost, you can use any theme you want, built by anyone. There's no lock-in. This gives you the chance to create a unique theme that suits your blog or newsletter. Heck, I've even worked on corporate sites built on Ghost!

Pricing

Now comes the cost of each tool.

How much does Substack costs?

Substack is free with a revenue-sharing model. This means you only have to pay for it if you charge memberships.

Substack keeps 10% of every membership you charge without a ceiling on its costs. So, the more you charge, the more they keep.

This revenue-sharing model is controversial. On one side, several writers have used Substack for years without paying a cent. On the other, Substack is taxing its writers' success.

Let's see how bad that 10% is with some examples. If you charge $50 per year, this is how much Substack can cost you:

  • 100 subscribers: $500 per year;
  • 250 subscribers: $1250 per year;
  • 500 subscribers: $2500 per year;
  • 1000 subscribers: $5000 per year;
  • 2500 subscribers: $12500 per year;
  • 5000 subscribers: $25000 per year;

These numbers are ridiculous and a robbery if you have paid memberships. You get the same service, same platform, and the same benefits, so don't make sense to pay a small fortune for Substack like the numbers above show.

How much does Ghost costs?

Ghost pricing is variable, and you only have to pay for hosting because the software is open-source. To give you an idea, self-hosting usually starts at $5 per month, and the best managed hosting at $9 per month

However, there are free options. For example, DigitalPress has free managed hosting, and it's also possible to turn Ghost into a static website and host it for free. The downside of turning Ghost into a static website is that memberships will stop working.

Who wins this category?

The winner of this category is complicated because they have completely different pricing models and depends on the person you ask. So, for me, I consider this technically a tie.

I say a tie because Substack can be used for free without strings attached or problems. This is fantastic for a beginner on a tight budget.

On the other side, you can use Ghost to run a professional publication with professional help starting at $9 per month. That's a fantastic price also!

Overall, if I have to pick a winner, I give the slight edge to Ghost for not using a revenue-sharing model and because there's no ceiling on Substack costs. But Substack will be cheaper for you if you only want to set up a free newsletter.

Monetization

Now, I'll analyze the options to make money with each platform

Monetization options on Substack

On Substack, you can only monetize with paid memberships.

However, most writers on Substack accept advertisements and put them in the body of the post. But this is a workaround to show ads and not a feature.

Also, if you make this and link to the sponsor without disclosing sponsored links, you're going against Google guidelines. I say this because Substack doesn't allow you to create nofollow or sponsored links.

Monetization options on Ghost

On Ghost, it's possible to make money with memberships and display ads.

Memberships work well for newsletters or episodic posts (think about books), and display ads monetize informational content better.

This is straightforward on Ghost. You can enable payments on the dashboard or create integration with Adsense to start showing ads on your site.

Who wins this category?

Ghost is the winner. I rate them as an 8 in this category. They have native memberships that are easy to set up, and Adsense display ads are also possible.

As for Substack, I give them a 5. Their membership works well, but that's your only safe option if you care about SEO.

SEO and Growing tools

To finish, let's see how they compare to growth.

How good are Substack's SEO and other growing tools?

The discoverability of Substack pages has been a known problem for quite some time. As a result, there have been many things written about it online.

“The only way a Substack grows is through tweets. I am like 85% serious when I say this.” - Casey Newton.

Substack has a discoverability tool on its homepage. Still, they are incentivized to list the most popular newsletters with the most subscribers. This creates a funnel effect by directing new readers towards prominent publications, making them even more popular.

This makes sense from a business point of view because when a writer makes more money, Substack also makes more money. So this is an incentive for them to push big players.

On top of that, discovering a Substack page via search engines is basically impossible, as Casey noted.

When I reviewed their SEO, I found the tool was awful. They don't have redirects, custom meta descriptions, nofollow and sponsored links, or canonical tags. These critical SEO flaws explain why it is challenging to grow a publication on Substack.

But at least they have:

  • custom URLs;
  • robots.txt file;
  • XML sitemap;
  • schema markup.

How good are Ghost's SEO and other growing tools?

Ghost is great at search engine optimization and has all the tools required for success, even if you ran a paywalled publication.

These are all the features that make Ghost good:

  • Custom URLs;
  • Robots.txt;
  • XML sitemap;
  • Custom social cards;
  • Canonical tags;
  • Schema markup;
  • Redirects;
  • Meta description;
  • Image alt text.

And because Ghost has integrations, you can even create your own referral program to grow your publication.

Also, on Ghost you can write custom HTML and use nofollow and sponsored links, avoiding going against Google guidelines.  

Who wins this category?

Ghost is a 9 at this and Substack a 4.

Ghost is incredible at SEO and has many features that allow you to find success and grow. But isn't perfect as their Image SEO is non-existent. I say this because images on my site aren't ranking, which is a bit of a bummer.

Why Use Ghost for Your Paid Newsletter

Ghost CMS is a top option for creators to make money with memberships.

They make it easy to charge memberships and content on your site. And with Ghost, people cannot bypass the paywall by disabling JavaScript.

Also, Ghost has basic stats for the newsletter in the dashboard, keeping things in one place.

So, with 0% fees, good tools for growing organically, and a lot of customization available, Ghost will suit you for a modern newsletter + blog combination.

Why Use Substack for Your Paid Newsletter?

You should use Substack for your paid newsletter if you want to dive into different types of content and have all the content on the same platform.

From what you can see, they're integrating a blog, newsletter, podcast, and video publishing all in the same place. This gives you options.

Substack is the default option for non-technical people to create a newsletter. This is because it's so easy to start and is free. So, Substack is a good option for a paid newsletter and to grow an online audience.

Be aware of following their content guidelines and preparing yourself to work a lot to grow the newsletter via channels other than search engines.

Summary

Here are the final ratings for each platform:

  • Ghost CMS (using managed hosting): 8.8;
  • Substack: 6.0.

I found these numbers using my custom checklist with the things I consider more important, having more weight. It's not perfect, but it gives me a more consistent way to rate platforms.

Ghost is miles better than Substack, and it's not even close. It has:

  • better SEO;
  • text editor;
  • integrations;
  • more design options;
  • and is suited for professional use.

Ghost has more features and is the wiser choice to have control of your data and avoid bans at any moment. Further, it's better for building a content business, and the learning curve is minor.

Substack is one of the biggest responsible for making newsletters cool again. It's simple to use and solid for a combination of a podcast, blog, and newsletter. It's even better if you want to run a free newsletter as you don't have to pay anything to use it.

Bottom line, if you want the lowest technical barrier and the zero-cost option, Substack will be your best option. But remember to follow their rules and know that you're giving up on SEO by using Substack.

Overall, Ghost will be better for SEO, beautiful custom design, better writing experience, more features, and a predictable cost. I use Ghost, and I wholeheartedly recommend them.